Historian Tom Rowsell examines how ancient prejudices against traditional polytheistic religions still result in exclusion from powerful institutions, which claim to promote diversity and interfaith dialogue.
It is estimated there are now over 250,000 pagans in the UK, in addition to a similar number of Hindus, who like pagans worship many gods. This summer the latest census results are due to be published and it is expected there will be a significantly greater number of pagans than in any previous year. The growth of pagan religions in the UK over the 20th and 21st centuries has been accompanied by an overall decline in religiosity, and a growing tolerance of religious diversity.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 was repealed in 1951 and common law offences relating to blasphemy were abolished in England and Wales in 2008 and in Scotland as recently as 2021. In light of these developments, it would seem Paganism is now just another faith among the diverse religions practised in modern Britain, but closer analysis reveals that ancient prejudices against traditional polytheistic religions still result in exclusionary language and policies from powerful institutions, even those which claim to promote diversity and interfaith dialogue.
Transnational organisations like the United Nations present themselves as representing the values of a “global humanity”, yet that organisation was founded by Westerners on a specific set of uniquely Western (and therefore Christian) values which they are attempting to impose on the world. While they condemn the old colonial European powers, they are in fact the natural continuation of them. The ancient Indian custom of Sati (ritual suicide of widows) appalled European colonists so it was banned by French, Dutch, Portuguese and British administrators who viewed it through a Christian moral lens. This is hardly different from the UN crusades against other religious customs which are unpalatable to Western tastes (including my own) such as female circumcision and child marriage. The British government generally conforms to the same values as the UN and so we can see the notion of “religious freedom” is applied selectively both here and abroad.
The author Tom Holland has demonstrated in his book Dominion how the values of the modern West, even when it professes atheism and humanism, are rooted in Christianity. The idea of a global humanity exists in the Bible with the myth of the common ancestors Adam and Eve. The metaphorical description of time as a kind of space, through which one “progresses” becomes possible only with the invention of linear history and the “year 0” of Christ’s birth.
Among traditional religious groups such as Hindus and European pagans, time is regarded as cyclical, so for them it is merely an abstraction to speak of “progress”. Yet unshakeable faith in progress is the defining belief system of the modern West and of global powers in general. This faith, looking ever forward to salvation in a future governed by ‘reason’ and furnished with the marvels of technological innovation, has inevitably become affiliated with the rather flimsy but popular philosophy of transhumanism.
Transhumanism has recently been promoted by the UN-affiliated World Economic Forum and by UN-promoted author Yuval Noah Harari. This is nothing new for the UN though, way back in 1957, the first director of UNESCO, Julian Huxley, expressed his desire to reject old superstitions and make way for a new belief he called transhumanism. Its adherents assert that mankind is “limited” and that these limitations need to be overcome through technology. Just as Christ was said to have “conquered death”, some transhumanists see death as undesirable and unnecessary – an obstacle to be overcome through technology. Yet unlike Christians they do not believe in an immaterial, transcendent realm or God. The early Christian Gnostics asserted that this natural world is evil and that we must instead seek unification with God in the next world. Similarly, many transhumanists anticipate the emergence of a super artificial intelligence which shall surpass man, an event called the technological singularity, and that man may unify with this posthuman intelligence in a manmade realm of pure data – the materialist heaven.
Feminist author Mary Harrington has coined the term “fully automated luxury Gnosticism” to describe the goals of certain very-online technophiles with an aversion to the natural world. This messianical anticipation is also connected to the idea of the “posthuman” – the alleged next stage of non-biological human evolution (progress). This is no fringe cult. It is a hugely influential belief system promoted by the most powerful organisations on Earth as well as by wealthy individuals like Elon Musk. It is poised to become a global religion – a desirable outcome according to UN Assistant Secretary-General Robert Muller, “the philosopher of the United Nations” who said the world’s religions must “globalise themselves” so they can “give birth to the first global, cosmic, universal civilisation.”
Pagan thinkers like the Neoplatonist Iamblichus rejected Gnostic beliefs entirely, instead asserting that the material world is divine – existing within the divine. Most modern pagans also regard the natural world as holy. Hinduism and European forms of paganism revere death – some believe that in death you unite with ancestors, others that you are purified in the underworld so that you can be reincarnated. Death is itself deified as various gods of the underworld like Hel, Hades and Yama. As it says in the Atharva Veda “Praise to that Yama; praise to Death!” Whether you seek freedom from samsara, rebirth as a descendant or unification with the divine, death is essential and desirable.
Another part of what defines pagan religions is their regional and temporal character – gods are worshipped because they are the gods of our ancestors, and rites are observed in sympathy with the cycles of the natural world. We cannot decouple paganism from the natural world – nor can paganisms be integrated into a global religion without ceasing to be pagan since they are defined by their regional and ethnic character.
So pagans are justifiably concerned about the rhetoric echoing from the halls of power which marginalises them, while claiming to represent them. That’s why we are coming together in London on the 25th of June for the Pagan Futures conference. The speakers are myself, Tom Rowsell, a practising pagan of 13 years, known for my YouTube channel Survive the Jive, and Dr. Borja Vilallonga, also a pagan and a scholar of history and religion previously at Columbia University, New York University, and the University of Newcastle. There will also be a live musical performance from the pagan folk artist Wolcensmen and a Q&A session during which the audience will be able to ask us about the pressing issues regarding the future of paganism in an increasingly anti-pagan, neo-Gnostic world.
- Date: 25th June 2022
- Place: South London, UK
- Theme: European polytheistic traditions in a globalised future
- Tickets: HERE